Asana and Yoga

A couple weeks ago my neighbor helped to host the Mac Forest Trail Run, a 50k forest race. Many exceedingly fit people come and go from the neighborhood helping prepare for the race. One of these folks dropped by to ask me about the studio. He practices yoga and wanted to talk. He said he needs ‘efficient yoga.’ He quoted his teacher saying: “get real folks, this is exercise.” He likes to be pushed hard. He uses yoga as a tool to keep him running. He doesn’t want philosophy or the meditation. He wanted to tell me about his practice. He was looking for affirmation. I replied: “If it working for you that’s great.” And I told him that I’ll be here practicing for the rest of my life. When he is ready to move deeper into his yoga practice to come give my studio a try.

As I thought about the conversation afterward, it occurred to me this man is studying Asana. Asana, the yoga postures, is one of the eight limbs of yoga. Studying Asana improves health and well being. It makes you stronger, more flexible and improves your balance. It is the door through which we enter Yoga. It is a great beginning and we are always beginners. Yet is only the beginning. Yoga is so much bigger than Asana.

The yogic view sees the self as being comprised of 5 primary sheaths or layers. The outer most layer is Anna Maya Kosha: the physical body. Anna Maya Kosha is the sheath we have most ready access too. We can touch it, see it, taste it, smell it, hear it, and measure it. We can directly observe how Asana changes the Anna Maya Kosha. We feel the pleasure and progress of a good Asana practice in this sheath. We develop kinesthetic delight here and it keeps us coming back.

Asana also improves our proprioception. Proprioception is the awareness of where our bodies are in space. We all have this sixth sense but we are less conscious of it than we are of sight or touch. Proprioception is important for our health and safety and it is tangibly missed when it goes awry. If you have ever had a dizzy spell or become spatially disoriented under water you know what lack of proprioception feels like. Proprioception is controlled in the deeper parts of the brain along with our heartbeat, our organ functions and other physical processes we don’t consciously attend to. But when our yoga teacher asks us to balance on one leg, to negotiate a difficult twisting posture or turn our bodies upside down we begin to discover challenges to our proprioception. This challenge opens the connection between the conscious body and the subconscious body.

Developing proprioceptive awareness is one of the pathways that awakens conscious connection with deeper layers of the self, between Anna Maya Kosha and Prana Maya Kosha. We begin to make the connections between our physical body, our energetic body and our emotional body. The yogis call these three the gross bodies. These are the layers we can learn to touch, perhaps not figuratively, but in a very real sense we feel these sheaths.

As we proceed down the yogic path Asana is an essential part of the process, an important habit like brushing our teeth, but yoga lies in making deeper connections with the self. Touching into the subtle body (the wisdom and bliss body) is not a matter of performing lotus posture while in headstand. Touching into the subtle body is a result of time, patience, deep listening, and practice. Yoga is union of the gross body and the subtle body. Asana is a tool in the yogic tool box, just one of the eight limbs of yoga.